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108 Divyadesams in English Coffee Table Book

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Kuchipudi exponent Sailaja has brought out a photo book on the 106 shrines in India and Nepal that are considered the divine abodes of Lord Vishnu.

Well known Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam exponent Sailaja, who has been running the Saila Sudha Trust in Chennai for over 25 years, has come out with what could be called a little chunk of the hidden glacier.

Around 2010, Sailaja, a senior disciple of late Vempati Chinna Satyam, was preparing for a new stage production along with her young dancers and technical support team. It is not surprising in itself that she chose the idea of the 108 abodes of Lord Vishnu, which find mention in the hymns of the 12 Azhwar saints of Vaishnavism. These works, known as the “Nalaayira Divya Prabandam” (literally, 4000 divine poetic works), have inspired innumerable choreographic attempts in Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam and other forms.

Sailaja, who was in the Capital not long back for a performance, says she is lucky to have photographer Avey Verghese working with her, since he not only encourages her to foray into the realm of multi-media which, as a conventionally trained Kuchipudi and Bharatanatyam dancer, she doesn’t find easy, but, in this case, showed extreme interest in the very concept of the 108 abodes (known as the Divya Desam). “He was fascinated by the idea, and he said why don’t we go and photograph the temples?”

Of the 108 Divya Desam-s, 106 exist on earth, while two of them are known through myth only and believed to be “where no one can bodily reach,” as Dr S, Jagatharatchagan, Chancellor, Bharath University, writes in his foreword.

One of these is Vaikuntham and the other Ksheerabdi (the ocean of milk or the Milky Way). Verghese and his team visited all 106 others, spread across Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, parts of North India and Nepal.

The result was not just a multimedia production, “Vaikundam: Vaishnava Yatra”, which included projection of the visuals along with voiceover and live dance, but also a book. Titled “108 Divya Desam: Vaishnava Yatra…” it has over 380 pages and is published by the Saila Sudha Trust. Full of pictures of the temples’ exteriors, scenic and architectural views, it contains the deities of each temple as graphic representations (photography within the sanctum not being allowed) by D. Kalaiarasan, along with simple descriptions of the posture.

The volume is enormous, but the task is even more so. While the photographs are by Varghese, the rest of his documentation team consisted of Aparna Kochumon, Paul Adam George, and Joshua Bharath, besides Kalaiarasan. Though not commercially produced so far, a limited number of copies have been printed by the trust for distribution to select recipients. “Niyogi publishers have expressed interest in the book,” says Sailaja. “We brought it out as a photo book because we had so much visual material, but the publishers would like us to put in more text about each shrine. It will become more like an encyclopaedia.”

The work is of immense value to classical dancers, for whom the hymns of the Bhakti period form such rich source material. It is naturally also of great interest to the devout. Once it is published by a commercial publisher with a perspective on a wider readership, one expects it will become even more attractive to those with a more general interest in temples and mythology, tourism and architecture. As it stands now, there is a bit of a tilt towards those who understand Tamil, which is understandable since the impetus to document the shrines has come from the Divya Prabandas of the Tamil saints. A glossary has been provided which explains the use of words like moolavar (presiding deity), kannadi arai (mirror room), etc. Once expanded and alphabetised, the glossary would greatly enhance the usefulness of this magnificent attempt by a small group of individuals.

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